Article MT151

Revisiting Baring-Gould 1

First part of a six part series

Part 1: The sources

When we recall that Sabine Baring-Gould began his collecting late in the 1880s, it is something of a shock to realise that there has been no thorough revision of his work since, despite changes in our perception of singers and singing since the time of the so-called 'Folk' Revival between, roughly, 1890 and 1920.2  In November 1998 the issue of the Baring-Gould manuscripts, in the form of microfiche, by the Wren Trust in Okehampton, was welcome, therefore, because, from then on, with the advantage of what may be termed 'internal evidence', details of Baring-Gould's collecting and editing methods were available to go with material already in existence such as various introductions to publications that Baring-Gould wrote, mostly between 1888 and 1895, that might enable us to work out perspectives which themselves, perhaps, qualify some of the apparent anomalies in his work.  This much was forecast anyway by the editors of the microfiche issue, Martin Graebe and Ian Maxted, in their published introduction to the material.3  As yet, though, no such revision has appeared; so a start in the process is offered below indicative, it is hoped, of some areas where work could usefully be carried out (one awaits with eagerness the findings of Martin Graebe himself in conjunction with Chris Bearman which, apparently, concentrate on Baring-Gould's singers).

Briefly, as a survey of material now at hand, we find that the microfiches available consist of the following, rather uneven repositories.  There is, first, a set of Rough Copy manuscripts, but which are not at all comprehensive.  We might reasonably assume these to represent Baring-Gould's own first notations of tune, and, indeed, those of his two collaborators, Frederick Bussell and Harold Fleetwood-Sheppard, about whom information is given below and in subsequent articles.  Sometimes these manuscripts include fragments of text.  Then, second, there are sets of material with which Baring-Gould seems to have attempted to make up separate formal drafts, perhaps for publication - the Killerton and Plymouth manuscripts (two sets, the second containing texts that were collected versions of songs as opposed to those gleaned from printed sources of one kind or another) and a Harvard copy of material that had been sent to Francis James Child.  Thirdly, there are Fair Copy manuscripts which seem to have provided an assemblage from which choice was eventually made for publication.  Finally, there are Personal Copy manuscripts which in most ways parallel the Fair Copy manuscripts but which also seem to have acted as a repository to which Baring-Gould continued to add material, and in which he appears to have revised earlier entries.  The Personal Copy manuscripts include a specimen title page and then follow the ordering of songs as they appeared in the first editions of Songs and Ballads of the West; Baring-Gould's first published collection,4 but the amount of information given sometimes differs from both that of the initial publication of SBW itself and from that given in Fair Copy. 

From these microfiche sources, a view of songs and singing practice can be extrapolated, but its nature is not at all straightforward and would appear to be, at times, a little contradictory, as will be seen.  If nothing else, though, the microfiches reveal how, over a relatively short time, Baring-Gould managed to assemble a large body of songs and related material, a tribute to his industry in keeping with what is known about him as polymath.

A second source helping to understand progress and, to an extent, motive, is the number of essays and introductions that Baring-Gould wrote.  The essays, for the moment, are referred to but briefly below since a more substantial look is planned.  They do, though, underline a modus operandum, especially where his soliciting of material is concerned.

He was quite clear in the introductions to his published collections about his methods of assembling material, chiefly as it applied amongst a familiar range of Reverends and 'gentlemen' whose ranks preview the by now familiar networking done a few years later during the 'Revival' in interest in English 'Folk' song.5  In the Preface to the first part of the first edition of SBW, for instance, he wrote that:

I appealed to the public in the west for traditional songs and airs.  I received in return a score of versions of one, “The Widdecombe Fair.”6
During the course of issue of SBW he went on to mention informants such as J D Prickman at Belstone (see also text below) and Geoffrey Bennett, Esq, son of the Rector at Lydford; and he included yet more references in the notes to the songs themselves - in Part One of SBW, R Kelly, Esq, of Kelly (Tavistock) for the song, Arscott of Testcott; the song, The Seasons, 'sent from Stratton in Cornwall'… interestingly, in the first completed edition of four parts (see below for details of issue), this reference, which reveals little, was dropped and only oral versions noted; again in the completed assembly a version of Fathom the Bowl from H Whitfield, Plymouth ' who said it had been sung by his grandfather', a version of The Sweet Nightingale from E F Stevens, Esq, of St Ives, and the 'words and air' of Jan's Courtship from Mr R Rowe of Milton Abbott.7  These are but examples.

In respect of the quotation given above, Baring-Gould added that '…I heard from C.  Spence Bate, Esq., of The Rock, South Brent, that there were two notable old men singers in that place' and in this case a meeting was arranged which proved to be very important for the impetus it gave to Baring-Gould collecting, as will be noted again in this series.

Further, however, in terms of reference to how help was solicited, SBW went through several editions, initially as four successive parts, with a somewhat hasty introduction to the whole included when the fourth part came out; first revised by Baring-Gould and Frederick Bussell, one of his collaborators, around 1891 almost as the later issues of its four originally constituted parts appeared; once more between 1892 and 1895; revised yet again, by Baring-Gould and Cecil Sharp in 1905 - where, this time major changes appeared; and then, finally, in 1928.8  Some of the details noted above remained in the four completed set of volumes in the first edition although by then in the Preface Mr Bate had become 'late' and Mr Bennett had gone from the record.  The 1895 edition of SBW repeated the remaining details as they appeared in the Preface of the first edition but in 1905 a substantially re-written Introduction appeared; Mr Prickman was mentioned but not Mr Bennett; the current contact at South Brent was referred to as the Vicar - as he was much later in Further Reminiscences; and a Miss Bidder at Stoke Flemming [sic] was newly cited (for more details of Miss Bidder, see the forthcoming second article on Collecting).9  At the same time names of singing informants can be found in notes to each song as they were in the earliest editions.

When A Garland of Country Song, Baring-Gould's second substantial collection of songs, was published in 1895, only Miss Bidder was mentioned by name in the Introduction.10

As for the essays, they tend to cover the same ground-matter and to reproduce the same anecdotes but their main purpose was almost certainly to gain wide publicity for Baring-Gould's efforts.  Information about the nature of his collecting and a direct appeal for help was given in one or two of these essays - for example, in a piece entitled Folk Songs and Melodies of the West:

Some three months ago I wrote to the Western Morning News and the Western Daily Mercury in hopes of recovering, through some of their readers, the melody to an old Cornish song …11
One of the letters referred to above will suffice as example:
Sir, - Through your kindness in inserting my appeal for help to recover some of the old Cornish and Devon melodies and songs, I have received promise of help, and through the assistance of one gentleman have recovered the lovely Cornish miners' song and air of “Sweet Nightingale.”

The same gentleman tells me of a pretty old Cornish song, “Roll on, Gentle Moon,” with a taking air, but he can only recollect scrapes of both melody and words.  May I again appeal to your readers for help to save this song and any others they may recover from oblivion.

I remain, yours truly

S. Baring-Gould.
Lew Trenchard, North Devon, September 28, 188812
He got, in this way, the versions of Widecombe Fair already mentioned and, in part, of The Dilly Song:
A great number of versions of this song have been taken down, and a good many were sent to the pages of the Western Morning News, in 1888, from various parts of Cornwall and Devon.13
On another occasion in a short piece entitled Ballads and Songs of the West of England he wrote:
I shall be obliged if any of your readers can help me to trace some of the ballads…
And, in yet another piece, writing about Ballads in the West, Baring-Gould enjoined his readers:
It would be as well if some of the readers of the Western Antiquary were to take the subject up and work it throughout the West…14
Obviously, then, Baring-Gould relied to some extent on the explorations of others to set alongside his own collecting experiences, a process that became familiar through the work of collectors like Frank Kidson and Lucy Broadwood.

Finally (we should remind ourselves), there are, in the total oeuvres, the three published volumes: Songs and Ballads of the West (its format already discussed at some length); A Garland of Country Song dating from 1895; and the fascinating, eight-volume, English Minstrelsie.15  The latter is a somewhat neglected compilation but particularly interesting since it is focussed on what we may well have once viewed as inadmissable material for a true 'traditional' canon, encompassing, as it does, pieces from many sources - poets, composers, eighteenth-century Garden publications (Cuper's Gardens being one physical source and Vauxhall another)16, nineteenth century Songsters and the like.  It also has a bearing on Baring-Gould's usual touchstone of genesis and pedigree in song which was to refer always, as far as possible, to published sources even as, in parallel, he was assembling collected oral versions of songs.  Such a process of identification in printed sources was, undeniably, valuable, but did not, ultimately, encompass the full range of material that Baring-Gould encountered, which itself expanded Baring-Gould's musical horizons so that there were some necessary changes in his thinking during his continuing search for songs and in successive publications in order to accommodate changed apprehension (there are remarks in the essays which record this progress).  It is still worth re-emphasising that Frank Kidson and Lucy Broadwood also leant on printed sources in some ways though not, of course, exclusively, for whatever authenticity they conferred on their collections either in confirmation or as comparison; so that a kind of orthodoxy in methods of attribution grew.  The whole subject of printed evidence in the progress of Revival collecting and, therefore, by implication, in the repertoire of singers during the nineteenth century, is still a matter of speculation: few solid studies are available.  In Baring-Gould's case, to an extent, favour seems to have depended on what kind of printed authority was cited.  Eighteenth century ballad opera, for example, was acceptable as source although not, in the end, that helpful.  In terms of text, Catnach and Pitts were, in general, unacceptable, even if broadside text was a given feature of repertoire, most particularly amongst the younger generations.  Chappell proved to be of a great 'assistance' but although 'he has given us a most learned and precious treatise on the airs of Old England [he] has hardly touched on folk music'.17  One might, in passing, think that 'Old England' was precisely the subject-matter of English Minstrelsie.

For Baring-Gould the principal novelty of his collection was that the songs it contained were to be found 'in the mouths of the people', a claim, as it appeared on the frontispiece of SBW, which, it might be thought, is curiously compromised by his reliance on printed sources for support in indicating genesis and pedigree.  The inclusion of the text of Will Watch in all manuscript versions underlines Baring-Gould's inconsistency in this matter - written by John Davy, a Devon man, as Baring-Gould well knew, printed widely on broadside, sung in the theatre and hardly a piece whose pedigree rested amongst an illiterate peasantry.18  And whatever Baring-Gould's opinion of broadside printings, he amassed a huge collection, now housed in the British Museum, and made constant reference to broadsides in his notes.

We should always remember, though, that Baring-Gould and Frank Kidson and Lucy Broadwood were genuine pioneers in collecting and that their methodologies were perfectly reasonable given the social and educational backgrounds of each of them and the state of knowledge of songs and singing.  They stand at the end of the nineteenth century when precedent was that of the antiquary and the textual scholar, epitomised by the figure of Child whose picture was drawn by A L Lloyd, in discussion of the separation of text from tune in ballad studies:

There is a sadness in the thought of Child, the 'prince of ballad students', labouring all these years on the poetry of the songs with hardly a thought for the music that brought the words to life.19
On the other hand, it is scarcely necessary to observe how, during Revival collecting, much of the emphasis was on tune at the expense of words; and that is certainly how Baring-Gould tended to view his finds.  This is hinted at in the quotation above asking for tunes to an old Cornish song.  Most of the Rough Copy manuscripts, also as noted above, have tunes only.  Baring-Gould frequently remarked the primacy of tune, beginning in the introductory remarks to SBW as it appeared in four parts (not, then, in the very first part when issued), for instance, where he wrote, in respect of method, that:
We have taken down all the variants of the same air we have come across, and have given that form of the air which seemed to us most genuine.  In some case, where we could obtain no variants, we have printed what we received, as received from the only singer we found that knew that air…20
The 1905 publication was even more specific:
… In giving these songs to the public, we have been scrupulous to attach the airs precisely as noted down, choosing among the variants which commended themselves to us as the soundest…
And, then, in a way which might give us cause to pause a moment, that
… we have not been so careful as regards to the words.  These are sometimes in a fragmentary condition, or are coarse, contain double entendres, or else are mere doggerel.  Accordingly, we have re-written the songs wherever it was not possible to present them in their original form …21
Examples of the latter course include My Garden Grew Plenty of Thyme - 'As the words are claimed to be of the North Country, I have discarded them and written a fresh set to our West Country melody …'; As Johnny Walked Out - 'The original words are so long that I have crushed some of the verses together …';The Squire and the Fair Maid - 'I have been forced to tone down the words …';all from Part One; and from the three other parts of the first edition, The Old Singing Men - 'the words were much more modern than the air …  I have therefore discarded them and written fresh words …'; Lullaby - 'The words I have recomposed to the best of my ability …'; Broadbury Gibbet - 'I wrote a fresh set of words …'; The Blue Flame - 'The words are objectionable …  We therefore thought well to put to the West of England melody entirely fresh words …'; and The Hostess' Daughter - 'The frankness and rudeness of the original words demanded modification before the song was fitted for the drawing room …'.  Amongst other things; this introduces us to what has been seen as a process of Bowdlerisation - in favour of a disapproving nineteenth century audience - which will be examined a little more fully in a later article.22

'The melodies', as Baring-Gould wrote, 'are far more precious than the words'.23  There could be little more clear than this; and there is both implicit reinforcement of the sentiment throughout his writings - as indicated immediately below - and restatements of his current position such as can be found in very much the terms quoted immediately above in the Introduction to A Garland …24

Such enthusiasm for the tunes that he found can be gauged as follows:

Curious old tunes in the minor key many of them are, certainly not later than the fifteenth century.  Others of exquisite delicacy, modulate from minor to major and then back again.25
In complete contrast, elsewhere he wrote that the words in broadside balladry were 'utterly vulgarized and debased', and, again, much later, in his Further Reminiscences, 'I soon learned to mistrust the words to the songs'.26

We are now used to the emphases on the tunes amongst Revival collectors, not just in the work of Frank Kidson, Lucy Broadwood and Sabine Baring-Gould but in that of Vaughan Williams, for instance, and, of course Cecil Sharp.  Sharp, emphasising the glory of tunes, drew some working principles before he offered the most elaborated articulation of theories, particulars of material and resultant conclusions that can be found during the years of the Revival.27  In one way we are still suffering the legacy as perceptions have changed but the impetus fostered by such as Sharp cannot be denied.

It is interesting, in this regard, that one of Baring-Gould's biographers has tried to claim a sort of fatherhood of the so-called Revival for him.  Sharp:

was not the true pioneer of the present-day revival in interest in folk-song and dance.  As in many fields of pioneer work the credit has not gone to the men who really blazed the trail …28
Whatever the wrongs and rights of who has pre-eminence (and we can afford to be generous), Baring-Gould, it has to be said, was frequently inconsistent in his views, prone to dramatic, unqualified assertion, was not known to be particularly accurate in some ways and, as suggested above, forced to abandon some (at least) of his predilections and, perhaps, pre-judgements.  We, in turn, might need to face anomalies and to examine our suspicions about the effect that they had on the ultimate value of songs that we now enjoy.

Roly Brown - 11.2.05
Oradour sur Vayres, France


Article MT151

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